What Is a Legal Retainer?

what is a legal retainer

A legal retainer is a fee paid upfront by a client to secure the services of an attorney[1]. It essentially “reserves” the time and expertise of a lawyer, making them accessible to the client for an agreed-upon time[1]. The amount of the retainer fee can vary and may be a flat fee or an hourly rate[1]. In short, a legal retainer serves as a guarantee that the lawyer will be available to work on the client’s case and provides peace of mind that the client has dedicated legal representation when they need it[1].

There are several types of legal retainers, each serving a different purpose:

  1. General Retainer: This type of retainer is paid to reserve an attorney or firm’s time, ensuring their availability should an issue arise[3]. The compensation is only for reserving this availability, and the lawyer or firm will have further fees for the services performed[3].
  2. Security Retainer: Also known as a retaining fee, this type of retainer is a payment made by the client for future services, but the money does not go to the lawyer until they earn the compensation[6]. The goal of a security retainer is to ensure that funds are available to pay the lawyer and firm[6]. When the security retainer is paid, it goes into a trust, and not to the lawyer[6].
  3. Advance Payment Retainer: This type of retainer is a prepayment for services the lawyer or firm will perform in the future[6]. Unlike general retainers, which merely reserve the lawyer’s time, any type of advance retainer is actually paying for the services[6]. These retainers can be used to cover all the compensation for the services or just a portion, with the client being responsible for any extra fees that accumulate[6].

Legal retainers offer several benefits for both lawyers and clients:

  • Guaranteed Payment for Attorneys: Retainers provide lawyers with a certain amount of guaranteed payment, ensuring that they are compensated for some of their time spent working on a case[1].
  • Peace of Mind for Clients: For clients, a retainer provides peace of mind that they have dedicated legal representation and that their attorney will be available to work on their case[1].
  • Protection for Both Parties: Using a retainer is an effective means of establishing trust between the attorney and client while protecting both parties[1]. The client trusts the attorney to safely hold their funds until rightfully earned, and the attorney trusts the client to uphold their financial obligations should the initial retainer fee be exhausted[1].

To effectively use legal retainers, it’s important to follow best practices:

  • Communicate with the Client: Clear communication is key when it comes to retainers[1]. Lawyers should discuss the retainer in detail with their clients, explaining the purpose, amount, and terms of the agreement[1].
  • Use Trust Accounts: Retainer fees should be held in a trust account until the lawyer has earned the fees through the provision of legal services[1]. This ensures that the funds are not used for personal purposes before the services are fully performed[1].
  • Refund Unused Portions: If any unused portion of the retainer fee remains after the legal services have been completed, it should be refunded to the client[1].

Q: What is a legal retainer?

A: A legal retainer is a fee paid to a lawyer or law firm in advance to secure their services and ensure their availability for a particular legal matter.

Q: How does a retainer agreement work?

A: A retainer agreement is a contract between a client and a lawyer or law firm that outlines the terms of the retainer, including the retainer fee, the scope of services, and how costs and expenses will be billed.

Q: What is a retainer fee?

A: A retainer fee is the upfront payment made to a lawyer or law firm for their services. It is typically paid before any legal work is done and is held in a trust account until it is earned by the lawyer.

Q: How much is a lawyer retainer fee?

A: The amount of a lawyer retainer fee varies depending on the complexity of the legal matter, the experience of the lawyer, and other factors. It is usually agreed upon between the client and the lawyer or law firm.

Q: What is the purpose of a retainer for a lawyer?

A: The purpose of a retainer for a lawyer is to secure their services and ensure their availability for a particular legal matter. It also provides a sense of security for the client, knowing that they have a dedicated legal professional on their side.

Q: How does a lawyer use a retainer?

A: A lawyer may use a retainer to cover their fees, costs, and expenses related to a specific legal matter. They may bill against the retainer as they work on the case and replenish it if necessary.

Q: What is a retainer trust account?

A: A retainer trust account is a bank account where the lawyer holds the retainer funds separate from their own money. It ensures that the client’s money is protected and only used for the purposes agreed upon in the retainer agreement.

Q: Can I get a refund of my retainer if I don’t need the lawyer’s services anymore?

A: The refund of a retainer depends on the terms of the retainer agreement. Some agreements may provide for a partial or full refund if the lawyer has not performed any work, while others may not allow for a refund.

Q: How do I pay a lawyer?

A: You can pay a lawyer by writing a check, using a credit card, or transferring funds electronically. The method of payment may vary depending on the lawyer or law firm’s policies.

Q: What is an unearned retainer fee?

A: An unearned retainer fee is a portion of the retainer that has not yet been earned by the lawyer. It is typically held in a trust account and is refunded to the client if it is not used or earned.

Reference List

  1. LawPay. (2023). Lawyer Retainers: Definition, Purpose, and Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.lawpay.com/about/blog/lawyer-retainers/
  2. Forbes Advisor. (2023). What Is A Lawyer Retainer? 2023 Guide. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/advisor/legal/lawyer-retainer/
  3. Legal Information Institute. (2023). Retainer. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/retainer
  4. Fenza Legal Services. (2019). What Is a Legal Retainer and How Does It Work? Retrieved from https://fenzalaw.com/blog-index/what-is-a-legal-retainer-and-how-does-it-work/
  5. FindLaw. (2023). What Does it Mean to Have a Lawyer on Retainer? Retrieved from https://www.findlaw.com/hirealawyer/attorney-fees-and-agreements/what-does-it-mean-to-have-a-lawyer-on-retainer.html
  6. Investopedia. (2023). Retainer Fee Meaning, Uses, How It Works, and Example. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/retainer-fee.asp